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Jul 14

Day 11: Corsham to Calne

Eleven miles through Cotswold countryside, walking through endless fields, many of them more or less rendered impenetrable by selfish farmers who appear to have no consideration for walkers. Theresa May claims the worst thing she has ever done wasto run through a cornfield! Well I have charged through several recently and in my view blazing such a trail is manifestly in the public interest.

It started like this…

We were heralded right-royally last night and I was asked to talk about the work of ZANE and how it began fourteen or so years ago. It all began by accident, really, as so much does that happens in life. We think we are in tight control but that is an arrogance.

It began in response to a cry for help. I met a woman whose husband was murdered in 2002 by Mugabe’s henchmen at the beginning of the troubles. She fled to the UK in fear of her life with two children. As she was a polio victim I thought she deserved help and so I gave her some money and off we went.

Then other sad cases appeared, and then more, and so the work of ZANE began in earnest.

I have  learned  the hard way that, if you can come to someone’s help when they are in need, then do so.

 

Fighting Fear

The shortcomings of St Peter and John Wayne are easy to criticise. Their human weaknesses remind us that there is nothing very original about mankind. It’s all too easy for us to condemn others for sins that don’t hold any temptation for us, but it requires courage to take a long, hard look at ourselves and confront our own failings with a clear eye.

Turning a Blind Eye

I have a memory that even after 60 years still haunts me. I was about 12 at the time, at an Edinburgh prep school. In my class, there was a solitary Nigerian boy – let’s call him Martin. He was a sad child, tall, weedy and withdrawn. He had a high, rather effeminate voice, and a perpetually runny nose. Of course, being black, he was a rarity in post-war Edinburgh.

The net effect of all this was that his life was a torment, a grisly episode from Lord of the Flies. Children can be devilish to other children who are different and Martin was an obvious target. He was beaten and mocked, his food was spat on, and he was subjected to vicious racial abuse. I have no recollection of where the teachers, an inadequate bunch of war-scarred has-beens, were during these incidents – but I can still see Martin’s contorted, weeping face turning from side to side as he desperately sought the support of anyone who might come to his aid.

Now I didn’t take part in the bullying or the name-calling, and the fact that it was happening upset me. But I’m sorry to say I never tried to help Martin: I was afraid, of course, that the bullies might turn on spotty, stammering Benyon instead.

Even at my tender age, I learned a harsh lesson. I was frightened of the bullies and behaved like a coward. But I discovered that that being ashamed of myself was worse than any fear. Everything boiled down to one simple proposition: whatever the consequences, we all must act so we can live with ourselves.

This is how it works in so many bad situations in our cruel world. We know that what is happening is wrong, but we keep our counsel and busy ourselves with tidying our desks in the hope that the problem will just go away. We sidle along waiting for someone else to do the martyr bit and expose the bullies.

I have now learned that occasionally we have to face down what is unjust – and to hell with the consequences. As former concentration camp survivor Elie Weisel said in his 1986 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Perhaps we think that those who speak out have to be virtuous superheroes –like Martin Luther King – but that is not true. The ones who act are often unsure of themselves. Moses was a murderer and stammered; Jeremiah was a depressed melancholic; Jonah was a coward and ran away; and Isaiah thought he was wholly unworthy. So, if we are fearful and doubt ourselves, we are in good company. But there are ways to defeat fear. Anna, in Richard Rodgers’ The King and I, sings:

 Whenever I feel afraid,
I hold my head erect,
And whistle a happy tune,
So no one will suspect,
I’m afraid…

 

The Blessing of Anger

The truth is, you can become as brave as you pretend you are. That’s one way to come to terms with our terrors. Fear has always been with us: fear of being bullied, fear for our reputation, fear of pain, fear of upsetting someone, or the fear of losing friends. To avoid being crushed by our fears, we have to coax them out into the open and then crush them. Only if we do this, can we speak up for the voiceless, the weak and the poor.

We all have a will, and if we don’t stand for something, we will fall for anything. When this happens, we are not just asleep: we grow spiritually dead. There is a wonderful Franciscan prayer:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships… May God bless you with anger at injustice and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace… May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done…

Poor Martin. I hope that if ever he reads this, he could bring himself to forgive me.

 

 

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